How to Find Out If Your Car Has Water Damage

July 7th, 2015 by

In late May, the state of Texas suffered through historic rain and floods. You’re probably familiar with the images showing submerged, abandoned vehicles littering flooded highways. Well believe it or not, those vehicles may soon be coming to a dealership near you.

Copart, a company that works with insurers to handle vehicles damaged in devastating calamities, recently said that as many as 10,000 insured vehicles endured significant water damage during the floods, with about 2,500 of those vehicles having already been towed away to a processing facility.

You’d assume that the damaged vehicles would either be thrown away, scrapped for useful parts, or retitled to indicate that they’ve indeed suffered from water damage. However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes these processing companies will “title wash” the vehicle, essentially masking the fact that the car ever experienced any water damage. CarFax estimates that there could be as many as 800,000 such used cars currently on the road!

“Unfortunately, some of the flooded vehicles may be purchased at bargain prices, cleaned up, and then taken out of state where the VIN [vehicle identification number] is switched and the car is retitled with no indication it has been damaged,” the National Insurance Crime Bureau said in a statement (via Jillian MacMath of

Water doesn’t only effect the car’s aesthetics. It can have a serious effect on your electrical and computer systems, which would subsequently have a negative impact on the lights, wipers and locks. It can also cause a variety of other issues, including defective airbags and anti-lock brake systems.

This means if you’re in the market for a used car, you should be aware of these masked vehicles. Luckily, there are a number of indications that will hint that a car has endured water damage. Before you head out shopping for a vehicle at your local Lexington used car dealer, take a look at the tips below…

Utilize the Sniff and Eye Test


You’ve likely experienced what a lingering, wet odor can smell like. If there is a musty scent emanating from the car, particularly the carpet, that should raise immediate red flags. Furthermore, if there has been an attempt to mask that musty smell with an air freshener, that should be a further indication.

Don’t just rely on your nose, as those processing facilities may have done an admirable job in eliminating the stench. You’ll also want to identify any signs of moisture or dampness, and make sure you check every nook and cranny. This includes checking the seats, glove compartment, the trunk, and the floor (which we’ll get to in a second). On the outside of the car, check for any water buildup in the lights and instrument panel.

A dead giveaway is mud. While dirt and grime could naturally find it’s way into a vehicle’s carpet or seats, it’s bizarre to find it in the glove box or trunk. If there’s mud or grime in a place where there shouldn’t be mud or grime, you may want to avoid that vehicle.

Check the Carpets


The carpets (as well as the upholstery) are the biggest indication of water damage, as they’ll seemingly hold moisture indefinitely. As mentioned previously, check for any wet or smelly spots. Make sure to check for consistency in the carpet, as it should match throughout the vehicle.

If you notice that the carpet is mismatched, loose, stained, cut, re-sown, or even completely new, you should start getting suspicious. After all, these car manufactures dedicate plenty of time, money, and manpower into features as insignificant as a carpet, so even a little blemish or uneven installation could be a sign.

The best place to check for these discrepancies is under the front seats, as the people making over the vehicles often rush through the project, missing some of the harder-to-reach areas.

Look for Rust


When you combine metal and water, you get rust. Therefore, the orange-brown corrosion could indicate that a used car had previously been flooded.

The most serious impact rust can have on a car is in the system’s wiring. If wires in the dashboard or engine seem to deteriorating, water damage is a likely explanation. Particularly focus on the car’s brittle wires, as those often prove to be the most vulnerable.

There’s obviously plenty of metal in the body of a car, so there are plenty of areas you can also target. Check the doors, the hood and trunk latches, the dashboard, the pedals, even any essential bolts holding objects in place… don’t leave any stone unturned.

As mentioned earlier, the people fixing up these water-damaged vehicles often rush through their project. While they may mask some rust damage, they’ve probably forgotten about some, too. Check for rust in hidden, forgotten areas, like underneath the car’s carpet.

Not only is rust unsightly, it can ultimately break down the body of your car. Overall, it’s just a better idea to avoid vehicles that have considerable rust damage.

Make Sure Everything’s Working


There’s really no limit on what water damage can do to your car. If you’re considering purchasing a used vehicle but you’re suspicious of potential water damage, make sure you check to see that every feature is working properly.

Turn on the car and make sure that all the lights on the instrument panel are functioning. Test all the lights inside and outside the vehicle, including the turn signals. You should also keep an eye on the air conditioner, windshield wipers, radio and heater.

You’ll probably want to take a look at the engine’s oil, as well. While the color of the oil should be very dark, water-damaged oil may be considerably lighter, often resembling light coffee or a milkshake.

If there’s a bright side, a minor issue could save you money if you decide to go through with the purchase. Reversely, a minor issue could be an indication that there’s a larger, concealed problem.

Rely on Other Sources


Regardless of whether you’re suspicious of water damage, it’s always a good idea to get a detailed vehicle history report prior to purchasing a used car. A website like CarFax can help identify any previous issues/damage, as well as any title changes. While these reports won’t report any problems that were seemingly brushed under the carpet, they’ll at least give you a clue to the previous condition of the vehicle.

You should also bring your potential purchase to a mechanic. Even after checking through all the warning signs above, a professional may be able to recognize an issue that you didn’t even think to check.


It’s understandable why you’d be in the market for a used car, and more often than not, you don’t have to worry about water damage. However, considering the Texas floods and the subsequent (assumed) sale of refurbished, previously-damaged cars, it’s a good idea to keep this tips in mind if you decide to shop.

CarFax recently released a map showing the number of flooded cars in each state. States in the northwest and New England are on the low side of the ratings, while states like Texas, Florida and New York top the list.

One place you can expect to find honesty and operating used vehicles is at Dan Cummins Dealership in Kentucky. Even if you’ve purchased a water-damaged vehicle elsewhere, the mechanics at Dan Cummins will be happy to get your car back in working condition.